To my friends, or to anyone with whom I have spoken even briefly, it is no secret that I love Kurt Vonnegut. As a self-proclaimed socialist, humanist, and atheist, Vonnegut is something of an unlikely figure to play a formative role in the intellectual development of a conservative. However, I find that he has a nearly Christian concept of what it means to love people and understands how that extends to one’s philosophy of place and community.
Vonnegut rejected a soft, generic, abstract love of humanity in favor of a distinct love of specific people, manifested in relationships with individuals at particular times in particular places. This is displayed in Vonnegut’s novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, first published in 1965. In it, Eliot Rosewater, heir to an empire of wealth and name recognition, shuns family expectations to move to Rosewater County in Indiana. Eliot proceeds to shower the locals with all the alms he can provide them: phone counseling, small financial grants, and even a fire alarm donated to the local volunteer fire department.
Eliot’s father laments his son’s departure from the lofty pursuits of business and politics. The elder Rosewater grills his daughter-in-law for an explanation of her husband’s odd behavior, demanding, “Tell me one good thing about those people Eliot helps.” In desperation, Eliot’s wife responds, “It’s a secret thing… The secret is that they’re human.”
Through characters like Eliot, Vonnegut demonstrates that real love is personal, local, and applied, not delivered from an ivory tower or government offices. Eliot becomes a kind of Good Samaritan, loving those people rejected and spurned by the prevailing culture. It’s also worth noting here that Vonnegut loved the Sermon on the Mount, and that Jesus’ famous words greatly influenced Vonnegut’s love of the lowly, reflected in Eliot’s character.
Eliot’s choice to live in Rosewater County, his family’s traditional home, is one indication that Vonnegut had a strong sense of place. Vonnegut believed that people were meant to live and love in small, local, “folk communities,” a concept he inherited from his anthropology professor Robert Redfield. For Vonnegut, love is shown and received first and foremost in and through the family, the bedrock of community.
Vonnegut expounded on his philosophy of family in his final written work, A Man Without a Country, in which he laments the state of twenty-first century America, and notes that few moderns consider what kind of world they will be leaving for their grandchildren. He encourages his readers above all to value the family as the primary institution through which society is preserved. In fact, when Vonnegut talks about the family, he sounds remarkably like a conservative.
Vonnegut may not have been politically conservative, but conservatives might find significant common ground with him than they would expect. For all his cynicism, crankiness, and crassness (and yes, even his unabashed socialism and atheism), Vonnegut discerned something critical about people that bridges the gap between political persuasions and touches the essential need of all humans to live and love in local contexts.
Philip is a native of East Tennessee. He is a rising senior studying political philosophy at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. In his free time he enjoys smoking pipes, playing the ukulele, and buying too many books.